Sermon October 12, 2014
Philippians 4:1-9 Matthew 22:1-14
“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”
The gospel lesson this morning reminds me of the words from the movie Auntie Mame, “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.” In the final week before his death, Jesus calls his followers out of complacency with this strange story of a wedding party that takes many twists and turns. How many weddings don’t have some strange twists and turns? There is some tension with a relative, the soloist has laryngitis, the reception hall is double booked, the best man’s flight is cancelled… you name it. There is often some issue to add tension and stress into an already stressful event. We like to believe that we just have to plan and it will all go according to plan. We only have to live a little to know that very little in life goes according to plan. You know the saying, “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.” (John Lennon)
When I was in seminary in Atlanta, I married a man. Both of us worked in a church at the time. The women on staff at my church hosted the wedding reception for us at his church. The room was crowded and I was far from the food table. One of the women who was hosting the reception came up to me and sheepishly asked if I knew the two elderly women at the food table. I looked across the room to the table and I didn’t know who they were. I just assumed they were someone from my husband’s church. The woman who approached me was concerned that they might be relatives of mine and seemed relieved that I didn’t know them. I later learned that they were members of my husband’s church. They were sisters and both lived with severe mental illness. They had been dismissed from the institution where they were living in the 80’s with nowhere to go. This church had taken them in and cared for them. They checked the bulletin weekly for weddings to come load up their purses with food to take home and eat later. The woman who had approached me didn’t know what to say to the women putting strawberries and chocolate sauce into their purses.
How often do we find ourselves facing a situation we couldn’t imagine and have no idea how to respond? In the story, the king throws a big wedding party for his beloved son. When he sends his servants to bring the guests who have been invited, the guests not only decide not to come, they kill the servants. The parables in recent weeks have had more than their share of violence. We look at the ongoing violence in our world and wonder why we cannot find a way to live together peacefully, and then we hear a story like this. Rather than a polite no, the guests kill the servants. They clearly did not want to come to the wedding! So the king retaliates by burning down their city. He then sends the servants to bring everyone to the party. This set of guests doesn’t have to meet any particular criteria. They don’t have to be among the best dressed, the most respected, the wealthiest. The party is open to everyone. The welcome is wide until the king comes in and discovers one person not wearing the wedding garment. The garment isn’t something the guests would have naturally had. The king would have offered one to everyone who came so the one person not wearing one clearly had refused the garment. When the man doesn’t explain why he isn’t wearing the garment, he is thrown into darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. I’ve always hated that line in Matthew. Then there is the moral of the story, “For many are called, but few are chosen.”
Weary of these violent episodes, I learned that Matthew was trying to offer some word of comfort to people living in the midst of violence. He wanted them to know that they would one day feast with Jesus. I suppose that makes it a bit more palatable, but the violence in these stories seems gratuitous. Is there some other way to tell this story or am I just looking to avoid the violence that is right in front of me every day?
The story is clearly telling us about how God’s welcome extends to all people. It is gracious and not reserved for those who are worthy of it. But it comes with some expectation as well. It is intended to be transforming and therefore asks us to show up with an open heart. God isn’t worried about what we are wearing to church, but God is concerned about how we are living our lives. In this day, when church attendance in general seems to be on the decline, the message isn’t that anything goes, just please show up. Instead the message is, come as you are and allow yourself to be changed into the image of Christ. Jesus is coming to the end of his time with the disciples. He is clear that it matters how we live our lives. He wants to know if they have been paying attention. Can they say yes to God and really mean it? Can we?
I suppose I have been wondering how much I’m willing to be changed by God. I say that I want it and I think that I want it, but I’m also pretty comfortable in my little life here.
One of the things the UCC has done well in recent years is marketing its message. They have a new bumper sticker that says, “Be the church. Protect the environment.
Care for the poor.
Fight for the powerless.
Share earthly and spiritual resources.
Enjoy this life.”
I love reading bumper stickers, but I have never put one on my car. I just ordered this one. I don’t think I want it for others to read. I want it for me to remind myself what I am committed to as a follower of Christ. I look forward to coming here each week. I look forward to worshipping with you. But what I really want is to be transformed by God in this community. I want to be different when I leave than when I arrived. I want to give this life all I have.
This isn’t a story of us as the hosts and how we will show hospitality to others. It is a story of how we will respond to God’s gracious invitation. It asks us to be shaped into the likeness of the one who invited us in the first place.
Paul is writing to his favorite church at Philippi. He is in prison. It has been 4-5 months since the presence of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The church that had such a powerful start is now struggling. Paul calls the community to remember their faith story. He reminds them that God is with them and calls them to live in a way that reflects God’s goodness. He’s not asking them to ignore the tensions, but to allow joy and peace to take root in the soil that they are living. It isn’t easy for us to feel joy when things are difficult and yet some of the most joyful people I have ever known are some who have faced the most incredible obstacles. They seem to understand that joy and pain are not mutually exclusive. Paul wants the church to understand that faith is something we practice. Sometimes we practice it when we aren’t feeling it. Paul promises that God’s peace will sustain us in all things.
God invites us to a life that is beyond our capacity to imagine. Matthew uses the image of a party for all. This gracious invitation comes with two requirements. The first is that we say yes and show up. The second is that we allow ourselves to be transformed into God’s image. The feast is for all of us. The invitation is ours. It is up to us to respond. How big is your yes?